Sakti bodies – I
“By you is everything supported, by you is the world created: by you is it protected, O Goddess, and you always consume (it) at the end (of time).
At (its) emanation you have the form of creation; in (its) protection (you have) the form of steadiness; likewise at the end of the world (you have) the form of destruction. O you who consist of this world!
You are the great knowledge (mahavidya), the great illusion (mahamaya), the great insight (mahamedha) the great memory and the great delusion, the great Goddess (Mahadevi), the great demoness (mahasuri).”
Devimahatmya 1, 56-58
Sakti is one of the most fundamental aspects of Tantra – and potentially, one of the most bewildering. Sakti can be simultaneously a goddess; a philosophical principle; a power which can be shared and transmitted between bodies and persons. Sakti is highly relational – a circulating “substance” between members of a community. Sakti can be managed and contained through a variety of practices ranging from devotion (bhakti) to ritual and possession. Sakti-related practices are also found in relation to wrestling and martial arts. Sakti is also gendered in various ways – for example, in India, women are often believed to embody more sakti than men (NB: I’ll hopefully get around to discussing sakti in relation to gender and substances in the Kula Bodies series).
In the Srividya tradition, which is one of the tantric traditions which informs my practice, the entire universe is made of Sakti – everything shares in the body of the Goddess, who is simultaneously immanent and transcendent. Whilst there may be places, persons, and events in which sakti is intensified, the binary distinctions of sacred-profane, matter-spirit, mundane-magical etc., are not operative.
In the broadest sense, sakti (derived from its verbal root, sak) can be translated as referring to “the power to produce an effect, capability, efficiency or potency.” (Tigunai, 2000, p5). Sakti can be understood as the capacity to affect or be affected by another. Sakti can be thought of as in operation in any activity where there is a relation between two or more points.
For now, I will give a brief historical overview of the development of the concept of sakti – beginning with the Vedas and ending with a discussion of the Devimahatmya.
The worship of goddesses in India is ancient – and some scholars view the thousands of stone figurines of women excavated from Indus Valley sites such as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (dated from 2500 to 1500 BCE) as possible evidence for goddess worship, entailing that goddess worship in India has been ongoing for at least 4,000 years.
In the Vedas, goddesses are generally regarded as the “consorts” of the gods, rarely acting independently, and signified with the name of their husband, with a feminine suffix. Although there is no conception of an all-encompassing Mahadevi (“Great Goddess”), there are what might be thought of as “seeds” of the concept of Mahadevi which flowered during the Classical period. The goddess Indrani, for example, is described as “Indra’s deeds of power defied” – suggesting, as Lynn Foulston notes (2002) that Indra is only able to perform his deeds through Indrani’s power. Both Foulston and June McDaniel (2004) draw attention to the Devi-sukta – an important hymn eulogising the goddess of speech – Vac:
“I am the Lady, ruler of the worlds, bestower of wealth on my devotees. I have seen the Supreme Self in my nature, Whom all are enjoined to worship. I am the Supreme Deity to Whom oblations should be offered to a sacrificial fire. I reside in the essence of the universe. I make Atman enter into all individual souls. All direct their acts of devotion to Me….
I created the sky as Father, created the waters in the seas as Mother, pervade all worlds as their Inner Supreme Self, and manifest them with my effulgent body.”
(quoted from McDaniel, 2004, p90)
(I will return to sakti and speech in a later post)
The corpus of texts known as the Upanishads (usually referred to as Vedanta) formulated some important religious concepts that underpin many aspects of later Indian religious thought. A key concept in respect to the development of sakti is that of Brahman as the all-encompassing ultimate reality. The early Upanisadic texts tended to a monistic representation of Brahman as totally transcendent and unknowable, yet identical with the individual soul (atman). Brahman was neither male, nor female. Later Upanisadic texts came to emphasise the Manifest form of Brahman as Isvara – making possible a theistic relationship between deity and devotee, without negating the unity between Brahman and the world.
One of the earliest appearances of Sakti is in the Svetasvatara Upanishad wherein sakti is said to be vividha – manifold; jnana – knowledge; bala – power; and kriya – the capacity to act. These are her intrinsic characteristics.
Theistic approaches to deities can of course be found in Epic texts such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Puranic texts, emerging in what scholars tend to refer to as the “Classical” period of Hindu thought, build on and refine the monistic principles explored in the Upanishads, and extoll the virtues and deeds of particular deities, equating that deity in his/her unmanifest form with Brahman. Although the Puranic texts are for the most part, oriented towards male deities such as Visnu or Siva, goddesses are very much in evidence. Although goddesses tend to be portrayed as consorts to the gods, they are related to three key principles: Prakriti – primal matter/creativity; Sakti – Dynamic Power; and Maya – /magic/illusion/deception (but also sometimes “sport”). Goddesses are the creative power of the gods. A theme which also emerges is that of a goddess emitting other goddesses as seperate-yet-related manifestations. In the (circa 6th century) Skanda Purana for example, Siva’s spouse, Partvati, emits the warrior goddess Vindhyavasini (“She who abides in the Vindhya mountains”), who in turn emits other goddesses in order to do battle with demons, and who later are distributed throughout India, but these are not yet viewed as embodiments of an all-pervasive Sakti.
For example, in the Narada Purana, the goddess who bears the titles Uma, Lakshmi, Durga et al is also called Visnu’s maya. She creates the world-illusion, which gives rise to ignorance – Avidya – yet paradoxically, She is the source of Vidya – the knowledge through which the devotee is liberated. Another concept which emerges in Puranic texts is that one goddess is the source of all other goddesses. In the Brahmavaivarta Purana, the goddess Radha is identified as the goddess Mulaprakrti – the primordial source of the universe, and takes on a fivefold nature, being a part or fraction of Prakrti along with Durga, Laksmi, Sarasvati and Savitri. The Brahmavaivarta Purana explains that all female beings (human and divine) are to various degrees, parts of Radha/Prakrti – that they share the same essence.
The concept of Prakriti is of course a key element of the Samkhya philosophy (see here for a brief note on Prakriti in relation to the Tattvas) but I’ll deal with Samkhya influences on Sakti theology another time.
It is in the Devimahatmya (dated 6-8th Century, CE) that the concept of an all-encompassing goddess is fully articulated. Originally a section of the Markandeya Purana, the Devimahatmya is an extremely popular text (Thomas Coburn comments that there are “innumerable” manuscript versions) and it was first translated in English in 1823. The text takes the form of a frame story and three myths which extol Devi’s activities. In the first half of the frame story, it is recounted how a king and a merchant, beset by various adversities, retire from the world to a forest, in which they encounter a sage. The sage tells them that their problems are caused by the power of mahamaya – “She who posseses great deceptiveness”, and goes on to recount three myths. The first is concerned with Devi’s cosmic status; the second is an account of the origin of Devi and her defeat of the buffalo demon, and the third extols her various forms and their role in Her triumph over the Asuras Sumbha and Nisumbha. The second half of the frame story tells of how the king and the merchant come to worship Devi, and how she grants them boons.
The second episode of the text recounts how Mahadevi came into being as a consequence of a battle between the buffalo demon Mahisa, the leader of the asuras and the gods, led by Indra. The gods are defeated and Mahisa becomes the Lord of All. The remnants of the Devas petition Visnu and Siva for help:
“Then from Visnu’s face, which was filled with rage, came forth a great fiery splendour (tejas), (and also from the faces) of Bhrama and Siva.
And from the bodies of the other gods, Indra and the others, came forth a fiery splendour, and it became unified in one place.
An exceedingly fiery mass like a flaming mountain did the gods see there, filling the firmament with flames.
That peerless splendor, born from the bodies of all the gods, unified and pervading the triple world with its lustre, became a woman.”
Devimahatmya 2. 9-12 quoted in Foulston, 2002 p12
This vital power which emanates from the gods becomes the Mahadevi – in creating Her, they surrender their potency to her. She, the embodiment of Sakti is independent, and able to emit her own Saktis. She is not constrained by the will of the gods, and she does not return to them when she has triumphed. She does not require male allies in battle – she emits other goddesses, such as Kali. So she is simultaneously the embodiment of Sakti and produces her own, related-yet-independent Saktis. She later bestows this power upon her royal devotee – an indication of Devi’s power as a maker and supporter of kings. She is the primary reality.
The third episode, wherein Mahadevi triumphs over the asuras Sumbha and Nisumbha, highlights the nature of Mahadevi as Sakti. When Sumbha sents forth his armies against the Devi, she multiplies herself. In one instance, Saktis burst forth from the bodies of Brahma, Siva, Skanda, Visnu and Indra:
“Whatever form, ornament, and vehicle a (particular) god possessed,
With that very form did his sakti go forth to flight the asuras.”
The Devimahatmya is careful to avoid the suggestion that these saktis are consorts of their respective gods. They do not have a formal, consort-like relationship to the god, rather, each is the source of the god’s power, and following the battle, they return to the Mahadevi. Coburn (1995, p163) explains this as the understanding that reality is singular and feminine and can take on many forms, to which “the ignorant impute independent and permanent existence, but which the wise recognise as grounded in Devi”.
In the next post, I’ll take this further into the baroque complexities of tantra.
Thomas Coburn, Consort of None, Sakti of All: The Vision of the Devi-mahatmya in Hawley and Wulf (eds) The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India (Motilal, 1995)
Lynn Foulston, At the Feet of the Goddess: The Divine Feminine in Local Hindu Religion (Sussex Academic Press, 2002)
June McDaniel, Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2004)
Rajmani Tigunai, Sakti: the power in Tantra : a scholarly approach (Himalayan Institute Press, 2000)